Fred and Ginger were indeed fine dancers, their tapping defining a kind of sleek elegance heightened by the dream world of Hollywood. But there’s another kind of tap, an earthier, intensely rhythmic tap that speaks of irrepressible spirit in the face of unfulfilled dreams. That tap – soulful, playful and daring – has a long history, especially in the States. And it finds its latest form in Dorrance Dance, which was presented this past weekend by San Francisco Performances at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Karida Griffith © Em Watson
Karida Griffith
© Em Watson
Hurtling across an amplified dance floor, the company showed how innovative tap can be, especially in ensemble. The opening of the performance had all eight dancers tapping in alternating formations. Three taps from one dancer, picked up by a second dancer, interrupted by a third, and on and on, but in patterns that you’ve never heard – completely unexpected and perfectly timed. The approach ignored the usual solo pyrotechnics and the more familiar choreography of everyone tapping in sync, and opened up a different view of tap as an ensemble form.

The Blues Project is a collaboration between Dorrance Dance and Tosh Reagon and her band BIGLovely. And although Michelle Dorrance was absent from the first performance due to illness, both dancers and musicians rocked on, under the vibrant and powerful voice of Reagon, who reigned over the stage from an upstage platform that stretched the width of the stage. The band comprised of violin, guitar, electric bass and drums moved easily between blues, rock’n’roll and folk. The dancers moved faultlessly along with them. At one point Juliette Jones fiddled wildly while the dancers careened barefoot in a hoe-down. Washboard and spoons conjured up the hoofbeats of wild horses and accompanied the dancers as they whirled across the stage, costumed in urban summer dress.

There was a Lindy Hop number in sneakers, and even a traditional tap challenge. Both danced with fervor and exuberance, but somehow different.

Dorrance claims in her notes that it is Reagon’s “revolutionary” sensibility as well as her embodiment of the musical traditions of folk, blues and spirituals that attracts her to the music. And that was certainly present in the lyrics, which rang out with particularly contemporary meaning as Reagon exhorted, “Don’t try to terrify me/ I won’t bow down” and “don’t confuse the issues.” Combined with the heavy blues bass these challenging words lifted the hearts of the audience, and were echoed in the passionate attack of the dancers’ percussive steps. Dorrance’s stance toward her art form is equally traditional, equally revolutionary.

There were two extraordinary tap improvisations. The first by Derick K. Grant and the second by Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, both noted choreographers as well as performers. These were long improvisations danced to Reagon’s vocal urgings. Grant began by circling the spotlight that fell on the center of the stage, tapping in short bursts as if his feet were defining the borders of the light, and challenging the darkness. Grant is a large, muscular man. His lightness and speed are unusual in such a powerful physique. It was reminiscent of Muhammad Ali who could “float like a butterfly” and was no mean dancer when it came to moving his feet.

Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Derick K. Grant and artists of Dorrance Dance © Christopher Duggan
Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Derick K. Grant and artists of Dorrance Dance
© Christopher Duggan

Sumbry-Edwards began her solo upstage, placed immediately in front of the drummer. Her contained footwork had an intensity that was matched by Reagon’s plaintive singing “Fire! Fire! Fire burning!” As she moved across the stage she produced an unwavering pattern of sound, insistent in its energy and commitment.

“This is not the time to let anyone call out alone,” sang Reagon. And this brilliant company affirmed every word, proving in the rhythmic exchanges of their bodies, which took place on the deepest muscular level, that together is best. Together is strength and love and courage. 

*****